Hello UK! I heard about your snow from Cal and Viv. Hate to rub it in but on Tuesday I took a light engined propellor job from Saigon to paradise. We flew due south over a Mekong Delta thick brown with the alluvium that makes the area bread basket to the country with a healthy surplus for export. Before leaving UK I read that Thailand wants a rice cartel along the lines of OPEC. Arguing plausibly enough that the world’s big rice producers are importing dear oil and exporting cheap rice – and what’s modern agriculture if not the conversion of oil into food? – the Thais approached Vietnam, whose response, for all the nation’s dollar hunger, was tepid. I guess it’s easier to turn the taps up and down with oil than with rice.
Flying lower than the big planes do I stared in fascination at the lushness below, criss-crossed by a dense matrix of canals sourced by the Delta’s fat fingers. Keeping east, to avoid Cambodian air space I guess, we flew due south, turning sharply west only where South China Sea meets Gulf of Thailand to land on Phu Quoc, more off south east Cambodia than south west Vietnam. We overshot the landing strip, turning 180 degrees over the sea to come back in so low I could make out the faces of men on fishing boats. I could also see from an ocean absurdly blue and sands preposterously white that I’d made a sound if decadent choice.
Phu Quoc is like Goa in the early seventies; mile after mile of deserted beaches lined with the obligatory coconut palms. Temperature (this is the cool dry season) a steady thirty with low humidity and delicious breezes makes for easy living. Yesterday I hired a Yamaha to tour the island, shaped like a miniature South America: twenty five miles north to south, fifteen east to west in the north but tapering to a southern tip. Besides the beautiful beaches (I’ve had a couple of swims, but even sands as good as these soon bore me) I found three fishing ports as picturesque as anything in Cornwall or Devon: boats decked out in navy and aquamarine; the oranges and reds of their lifebelts and buoys slung bow to stern along hemp ropes. I’ve been lucky to stumble on this place before it’s too late: big hotels are in progress and it’s pound to penny that in the tension between centralised control and ‘capitalist roadism’, the latter will win out. There’ll be a free-for-all; hopefully not the unbridled lawlessness of Cambodia, but Vietnam is desperately poor after thirty years of war and another fifteen of stifling austerity, courtesy a command economy exacerbated by American vindictiveness in defeat. As with the USSR, whose Stalinist leadership lost control, and China, whose hasn’t yet, Vietnam’s party leaders introduced economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping style (though they’d never admit it) in the late eighties. Since then prosperity has grown. So, inevitably, has inequality. Rich or poor though, the Viets – no longer the poker faced peasants whose insecurity was easily misread as unfriendliness – are a radiantly smiling bunch who hanker after the good life, have seen what neighbouring Thailand pulled off, and wouldn’t mind a piece for themselves. I doubt they want the latter’s permissiveness though, still less Phnom Penh’s gangsterism.
For the moment Phu Quoc’s tourist infrastructure is lacking. That, plus its growing popularity and the fact this is high season, makes it difficult for temporarily drifting romantics like me. Though I didn’t know it as I left the tiny airport there’s scarcely a room to be had on the entire island. But the patron saint of ingenue travelers continues to smile on me. A delightful family who manage a set of tourist bungalows has taken me in; giving over one of the family rooms at an absurdly low price, even by Viet standards.
That said I’m getting itchy feet. Just as Goa never felt like real India, this doesn’t feel like ‘real’ Vietnam. Maybe it’s just that I’m seeing too many westerners, which ain’t what I came for. If I can I’ll move to the island’s main town, a bustling port with colourful market and people who grin and wave as I tote the Canon D40 and lenses I decided (no regrets yet) could not be left at home this time. That, or leave Phu Quoc altogether and head up the Mekong Delta by boat and bus, thence Saigon.
I recently met Quoc, an American born in Saigon. His father, sent to ‘re-education camp’ for ten years following reunification (no bloodbath; but those on the wrong side paid the price) got out on his release, first to Prague then the USA. Highly educated, Quoc recently chucked corporate law to work for NGOs. Based now in Bangkok he’s involved in challenging China on behalf of Cambodia and Vietnam over upstream damming of the Mekong, with all the devastating downstream effects that must bring. Quoc is smart and, given the family history, shows a grasp of Vietnam’s politics as balanced as it is astute. Naturally I’ve made the most of access to a westerner with fluent Vietnamese. I could write screeds on what he’s told me but will content myself with one thing whose confirmation had eluded me. Writing from Phnom Penh in the summer I pondered over Pol Pot’s goading of Vietnam; a country more populous and with far greater military capacity. How could he have thought he’d get away with it? Quoc’s answer was as I guessed; hubris, insanity and the belief China would weigh in on his side. On that last, even Beijing had by now had enough of the Khmer Rouge. So when a Viet border village on the Mekong Delta was subject to a KR massacre, it was the last straw for Hanoi and the rest is history. The continuing injustice is that no one – not the USA; not China, who made a show of temporarily occupying the north “to teach Vietnam a lesson”; not even the long suffering people of Cambodia, who rather despise their own ethnic Viets – has ever given the thanks due to Vietnam for ridding the region of a murderous madman.
Anyway, I know one petit bourgeois deviationist who’s about to head for the beach to sip coconut juice, so it has to be toodle-pip for now.